Richard Levesque is a teacher at Fullerton College in Fullerton, California. I met him while working at the Fullerton College Writing Center, where we really hit it off. Richard is also a graduate from Cal Poly Pomona–the school I currently attend. As we got to know each other between tutoring sessions, I discovered that he was an author in addition to being a teacher. Richard has published over ten books, both creatively and academically which you can purchase on Amazon and through his website. I was lucky enough to interview Richard to discuss his writing process and his latest release, The Girl at the End of the World, which has received nothing but positive reviews on Amazon. Richard is not only a knowledgeable teacher but an experienced, published author. So keep in mind how awesome his advise is while you’re reading this interview.
The Poetics Project: First off, thank you for the interview, again. Let’s start off with a question about your inspiration. I know you have lived in Southern California for most of your life–is that what inspired the setting of your book? Is there anything else about Southern California that you drew from in the creation of your book?
Richard: I’ve found LA culture and history fascinating for many years. There’s always been something about it that just draws me in. When I was nineteen I lived in a slummy apartment just east of downtown for a few months and just loved it. Later, I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Hollywood novelists of the 1920s and 30s, so I got to do a lot more digging into the history and culture of the area. I find the whole “California Dream” idea to be fascinating, the idea that this is where people come to make their dreams come true, just as often running from something as much as toward something else, and then when they get here there’s a shocking disillusionment. I set my first two novels in Los Angeles as well–one in the past and one in the near future. I’ll likely keep with this setting until it doesn’t work for me.
The Poetics Project: One reviewer on Amazon.com, Erin Oberdorfer, noted that “I cared about the characters, which is the main key for me to enjoy a book.” What process do you go through when creating characters?
Richard: They just come to me; I get a basic characteristic (fifteen-year-old girl, hack science fiction writer, maimed private detective) and go from there. I don’t do a lot of character sketching or back story. But I do know pretty quickly what a character would and wouldn’t do.
The Poetics Project: You have published other creative books besides The Girl at the End of the World, such as Strictly Analog, Take Back Tomorrow, Dead Man’s Hand (Ace Stubble), Unfinished Business (Ace Stubble), and Walk a Mile. Do you use the same process to write all of your books or do you find that each one takes a different creative approach?
Richard: These have all pretty well followed the same creative approach. I get lots of ideas and don’t usually write any of them down. The ones that stick, the ones that keep cropping up in my imagination during idle moments, are the ones I eventually commit to. I spend a lot of time just thinking about plot and character, not writing any of it until I’m ready to start drafting. The best place for me to think is in traffic; just turn off the radio and let the plot work itself out as I’m fighting my way through the Brea Canyon. When I draft, I try to write a thousand words a day. After two to three months, I’ve got a finished version, which I read through once to fill in any gaping holes. Then I give it to my beta readers–my wife and anyone else who I can rope in. After I get their feedback, I start revising and then editing.
The Poetics Project: You have also written guides for students on writing, such as A Practical Guide for Student Writers. Is it different to write an academic piece than it is to write a creative piece? If so, how?
Richard: It’s very different. The audience is different. There’s no plot or character in an academic piece. The process is different, too. When I wrote Practical Guide, it wasn’t at a thousand words a day. Just pushing through the process. There, I did have an outline of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to cover in each chapter. I did, however, beta test it with some colleagues and took surveys of their classes to see what was working and what wasn’t.
The Poetics Project: Does being a teacher influence the way you write? What advice would you give to your students if they wish to pursue publication?
Richard: I think being a writer influences the way I teach. I feel very strongly about the written word and the power that can come from getting it right, even in something as seemingly inconsequential as an essay about tattoos or Lady Gaga or whatever else my students are writing about. I know that if my students (mostly in developmental writing classes a step below freshman writing) can find their voices and the power that comes from getting it right on paper, that it can open up a lot of possibilities for them.
As for students who want to pursue publication: read, read, read. Read every day. And write. Write every day. A lot of people claim that you need to write a million words before you’re any good. That may be true. So don’t plan on publishing the first thing you write. Also, I would say write because you want to, because you have to, not because you plan on getting rich from it. That’s not likely to happen. Write because you want to reach people and entertain and inspire them. That’s an easier goal to reach. If you make a few bucks along the way, that’s just gravy.
The Poetics Project: Why did you write a post-apocalyptic type of story? Do you find yourself writing it in response to anything going on in the world today?
Richard: I’m not so much thinking about what’s going on right now; rather, I was just interested in the idea of survival and being tested. My wife reads a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff, and her other big interest for years was books about explorers like Richard Burton and Ernest Shackleton. There’s a parallel there–people in both sets of books are beyond the comforts and safety of society and have to do extraordinary things if they’re going to make it. Reading a few of her favorites inspired me to try my hand at a book along the same lines.
The Poetics Project: How do you edit your stories? What is the process you go through before publication?
Richard: I partly edit as I draft, but when it’s time to really get down to the editing, I make myself look for certain things. This last book was a little different since it was in the main character’s voice, and I felt there were times that she would use words I would normally edit out—such as a lot of forms of “to be”—so in this case I left them. In general, though, there’s editing for voice. Generally, I look for forms of “to be” that could go, passive sentences that could be made active, adverbs that could be cut, wordiness, etc. I also look for repeated patterns of sentences to try to vary things. I had an agent for a while, and in one of the manuscripts we worked on, she pointed out that in sentence after sentence I started with a dependent clause followed by an independent clause, a conjunction and then another independent clause. It surprised me when I looked over the manuscript how right she’d been.
Once I’ve got the voice stuff down, then it’s time to edit for mistakes and omissions. It’s amazing how many are still there after a third read-through. I try to read each paragraph multiple times in this stage, focusing on each sentence, each word, to make sure the words I want to have, the words my brain is telling me are there, are actually there.